I’m not one for secrets. (Don’t worry, if you’ve told me yours I’ll keep it.) But I prefer to not shut troubles away in the dark. Light brings clarity and that’s where, having lived with my share of shadows in the past, I choose to be. Thus, David Sheff’s passage, “The Peril of Anonymity” from his chapter on Alcoholic Anonymous in his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, resonated with me.
Sheff acknowledges that the proliferation of AA is partly, given the stigma of addiction, because of the promise of anonymity. He agrees privacy should always remain a choice but points out that this very requirement reinforces shame and isolation for the addict. But Sheff makes the point that “The history of other diseases shows dramatically how closely linked openness and health are.” He cites the power of AIDS activists and ACT UP’s Silence = Death slogan in so effectively drawing attention, funding and research to AIDS that an HIV diagnosis became, in a remarkably short time, no longer a death sentence. Until addiction is brought out of the shadows, choices and solutions will continue to elude us. Dangerous failures like “The War on Drugs” will persist.
In Japan in the 1980s, I used to meet doctors at a hospital for English conversation classes. One evening, a young woman doctor choked back tears as she told me she had broken a rule of the Japanese medical profession by telling a patient they had cancer. At least at that time, (I suspect this has changed) it was believed that to tell the patient the truth about their cancer diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence – that knowing their disease would destroy their will to live. And (this always got me) that they would feel ashamed. Seems archaic, doesn’t it? But think about it — how is this so different from our attitude toward addiction?
Some will say, “it’s a choice!” To my very core, I know all sides of this debate as does anyone who has lived with an addict. We have all wondered why they do not stop? Why do they risk everything – job, friends, family, their very life – for a drink, a pill, a line? It’s difficult to understand and accept that it’s not about ‘choice’.
Do you know a family, do you know anyone who has not been affected by alcoholism, by addiction? Tell me readers, that you cannot speak to at least one experience of struggle with this disease first hand or with a loved one? Still, like the unspoken cloud of fear and shame that hovered over cancer not so long ago, secrecy remains sacrosanct by the very groups offering up hope and successful stories of sobriety. I agree with Sheff that it’s time to open up, let the light in and reject, to rail against the stigma. Perhaps fewer will then end like my husband — never finding a way out.